The Other Sort of Flexi-Time: Get More Done Per Hour, by Ali Hale

Today you guys are in for a special treat. Ali Hale, who I interviewed almost two weeks ago, has written a wonderful article about how to get more done in the time you have.

This is the beginning of a new category here at Insight Writer for Life Hacks. I want to include a fair number of life hacks that are productivity related because I feel some of these things have the power to really improve your life. Sometimes drastically. So here’s Ali…

An hour’s always sixty minutes long – but some people will produce far more per hour than others. Interestingly, those who are most productive are often also those who are busiest. You may have seen this in operation in your own life.

Think back to the last time when you had whole chunks of free time on your hands – perhaps in college. Did you manage to storm through all your work by mid-morning and relax for the rest of the day? If you’re like me – and a lot of the people I write for on Alpha Student – you probably found that, faced with an essay to write and ten hours to do it in, you spent rather more time updating your Facebook profile, chatting on messenger, and tweeting your current thoughts on Twitter than actually doing any work.

Now, think about a time in your life when you were hellishly busy. When you were working a full-time job and setting up a business on your side. When you took part in NaNoWriMo. When your first kid was born. Did you amaze yourself with your ability to get things done?

I’m not suggesting that you go out and take on as many commitments as possible, just to recreate that sense of overload and busyness – it’s a sure-fire way to end up stressed, miserable and burnt out. But you can take advantage of a similar mental boost to your productivity levels…

Set Time Limits On Your Work

“Work expands to fill the time available.” (Parkinson’s Law)

If you’re a freelancer with all day to complete a small client project, guess what? It’ll probably take all day. If you work in an office job, I’m sure you’ve noticed that little tasks can end up taking all afternoon (“I need to file my emails…”)

Why does this happen? These are two key reasons:

· You’re a perfectionist and can’t stop “tweaking” things – they’re never perfect.

· You have imposed or self-imposed work hours, and you need to find enough to do to keep you occupied during them.

The way to solve this problem of work eating up all the time available is pretty simple. Make sure you limit the time that you can spend on your work:

“Work contracts to fit the time available.” (Ali’s Law…)

There are a few ways to do this, some better (for your stress levels) than others…

Only Work Just Before A Deadline

One way to ensure that your work squashes into the time available is to only start working when you have to – when a deadline is imminent. This method is hugely popular with students (so much so that it is sometimes dubbed student syndrome) – with three weeks notice of an essay deadline, many students will still pull an “all nighter” the day before it’s due.

The rest of us are prone to putting things off to the last minute, too. Have you ever queued to send your tax return on the last day possible? Have you ever dashed around the house frantically cleaning for the imminent arrival of your mother-in-law?

Leaving tasks until they become urgent is one way of being effective with time, and making sure that the things that really matter get done. But there are some significant drawbacks to this method:

  1. You may underestimate the time required (Hofstadter’s law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s law into account”) and have to do a rush-job that you know isn’t up to your usual standard.
  2. You’ll probably feel a sense of anxiety during the time you’re not working on the report, project or essay. It’ll be looming there in the back of your mind, making it harder to enjoy yourself – you know you’ll have to tackle it soon.
  3. You’re likely to be putting yourself under a lot of stress if you habitually work in this way. It’ll feel like your work controls you, rather than vice versa.

Set Yourself An Artificial Deadline

One way to get a similar effect, without the stress and anxiety, is to set yourself an internal deadline. I strongly recommend doing this even on projects which have a real external deadline (i.e. one where someone else expects you to deliver something at a certain time). Set your own deadline a week in advance of the real one.

A self-imposed deadline can help to focus your mind, especially if your project doesn’t have any real urgency, yet is still important. (For example, catching up with your correspondence, writing a novel, or launching a personal website.)

The main problem with this method is that artificial deadlines are “soft” and easy to shift back or put off indefinitely. You can get around this by:

· Being really disciplined about sticking to your self imposed deadlines – once you start giving yourself permission to let one slip, it’s harder and harder to make this method work.

· Writing your deadlines on your calendar or in your diary, to force yourself to take them seriously.

· Making a commitment to someone else to finish something by the deadline (for example, post on your blog that you’re going to finish your novel by July 31st 2009, or tell your spouse that you’ll have the spare room redecorated by the end of February.)

· Setting your deadline at a particular event (maybe you want to launch your website before a particular conference).

· Combining this method with the next one…

Impose Time Limits On Your Work

The most effective method I’ve found for getting work done efficiently is to work with set time limits. When you know that you’ve only got a couple of hours, it’s easy to storm through things without getting distracted. Have you noticed how you can speed up your work-rate dramatically when you want to get something finished before lunch?

Try setting limits on your work day: always leave the office at five, for instance, or never work after dinner in the evening. You may find that you can still get the same amount done, just without so many distractions or unimportant tasks cropping up during the day.

This is best, though, when used for short chunks of time. Some people even like to use a timer or an alarm on their computer to help with this. You might try:

· Giving yourself one hour to get as far as possible through your email backlog.

· Having a two hour slot before lunch to write the next scene of your novel.

· Completing that ebook you keep meaning to write in just three days.

Like artificial deadlines, time limits only work if you force yourself to stick to them. Again, getting a spouse or friend on board can help: if you want to stop work at five, for instance, arrange to meet a friend for a drink at five-thirty.

The other big advantage to this method is that it helps you get on with things you’ve been putting off: the huge task of “write report” or “catch up on email backlog” can be so offputting that you never start. Telling yourself that you’ll just spend an hour, or two hours, or one work day on a particular project makes it far less threatening.

Challenge yourself today – how much work can you squeeze into an hour? Pick one of your important tasks, set a timer running, and get going! If it helps, include an artificial deadline for your project completion date – and share it with us in the comments for an additional motivation boost.

Bio: Ali Hale is a blogger, freelance writer and postgrad student. You can find more of her writings at The Office Diet (RSS) and Alpha Student (RSS).

Comments

  1. Hey Jeremy and Ali,

    Great post! I have been using the artificial deadlines and setting time limits methods for years and am happy to report that they really work!

    I’ve also visited the Alpha Student site and think it’s great. I love the design and the work Ali is doing there is wonderful. I wish I were that productive and wise as a student!

    Daphne

    Daphne’s last blog post..8 Defenses Against Nasty People

  2. Jeremy and Ali,

    Great article, if I’d say so myself. I have a tremendous amount of experience in the “Don’t do work until a deadline is imminent” area, and I surely experienced every single of the drawbacks you listed in this article.

    While I do some of my best work under such pressure, I really don’t think the negative effects are worth it. The stress is ridiculous, and everything else gets pushed by the wayside (eating, showering, talking to anyone) as you finish your project in time.

    The concept of an “artificial” deadline is great, and your tips on enforcing it are even better. I will definitely start implementing them in my own life so that I stop freaking out every time I need to get something done.

    As a matter of fact, all of your tips are great, and I’ll experiment with all of them. Thanks for the article!

    Rahul’s last blog post..Free Up Mental Energy by Objectifying Your Demons

  3. @ Daphne – I wish I was more productive as a student too. To a certain to degree it’s one of those things. “if I knew then, what I know now.” 😉

    @ Rahul – That is why artificial deadlines are so great. You create your own pressure, which is definitely less stressful than struggling to meet the real deadline.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  4. Setting artificial deadlines is by far the toughest. Here’s a little trick that I use, which I learned from the Dalai Lama (“The Art of Happiness”), to give my artificial deadlines a greater sense of urgency: I remind myself life’s impermanent. While it may sound morbid, it works!

    Chris Cairns’s last blog post..Online Money Management — Which Application Is Really The Best?